You might have heard that “ER” is back. No, it has not been revived, thank the good lord of TV. With “Roseanne” and “Murphy Brown” and their original casts returning to primetime to join “Will & Grace,” we really don’t need more exhumation.
Since January, Hulu has been streaming the entire 1994-2009 series — that’s 15 seasons, 331 episodes, and more emergency intubations than you can shake a scalpel at. Often, hourlong shows don’t have much of an afterlife, unless they’re “Law & Order” or a crime franchise built on stand-alone episodes. It’s the sitcoms that seem to live forever in syndication, turning younger generations on to catchphrases and classic tunes such as “Smelly Cat.”
But “ER” has caught on, and it is finding an audience among binge-watchers, that class of TV viewers who want — and get — more, now. The show certainly lends itself to marathoning. “ER” had self-standing plots of the week that resolved before the credits, but it was primarily an ongoing soap opera involving the nurses, doctors, and administrators of County General Hospital in Chicago. Indeed, as more and more primetime shows like “ER” and “Ally McBeal” spun out continuing story lines from episode to episode in the 1990s, they helped bring about the end of the daytime soap era, one that, with its everyday viewing, had a tinge of binge. The soap plots in “ER” are addictive, and perfect for those who now love to sit and cycle through.
When “ER” was created, by novelist Michael Crichton, binging wasn’t a thing, although it could be done with DVDs and tapes. But watching those old episodes now, you can see how binge-ready they are. With its verite camerawork and its whisper-to-a-scream-but-usually-screaming pace, “ER” can be as riveting as a battle movie. The hours pass quickly, as the gurneys speed through the hallways. And the story lines are generally heightened, as questions of the patients’ life and death mingle with family problems and romantic tensions — particularly those between Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) and Doug Ross (George Clooney). The show uses the apocalyptic atmosphere of an emergency room to draw the staff’s deepest, truest, and most compelling selves to the surface.
Many of the habit-forming qualities of “ER” are the result of John Wells’s style and skill. As writer, executive producer, and showrunner at different points during the show’s run, he brought to “ER” the same kind of agility and briskness he later brought to “The West Wing,” “Third Watch,” “Shameless,” “Southland,” and “Animal Kingdom.” He never let the show’s popularity as a No. 1 hit make him lazy, as he threw in a live episode here and episodes outside the hospital walls there, to keep things dynamic. “ER” has a formula, for sure, but every so often — just when you need it — a distinctive hour comes along to break the pattern. “M*A*S*H” did the same thing. The most memorable “ER” episode, “Love’s Labor Lost,” was an unforgettably kinetic hour zeroing in on one case in which a woman’s labor goes wrong, and the live episode — a fitting format for an ER — was a fascinating look at just how complex the choreography on the show can be.
Another thrilling aspect of binging “ER” is watching the characters change across seasons, according to their experiences. When you watched the show on a weekly basis from year to year, it was harder to see just how much each of the doctors and nurses evolved. We saw Eriq La Salle’s Peter Benton go from an arrogant risk-taker to a bruised man with plenty of inner torment. Anthony Edwards’s Mark Greene seemed to become more self-destructive with each new tragedy in his life, and Noah Wyle’s John Carter grew from insecurity to confidence. Margulies’s Carol, who attempted suicide in the series pilot, became more expressive and assertive. The action on the show was ferocious, but it never overwhelmed these personal stories.
Here’s the thing: Everything I’ve said so far pretty much only applies to the first six or so seasons. The only slam I have for “ER” is that it went on far too long. Maura Tierney and Goran Visnjic joined the series in season 6, a pairing that had its virtues as Carol left to be with Doug, but the original cast members were leaving and the stories were becoming repetitive.
Recently someone asked me if he should binge “ER,” and I didn’t feel as though I could answer with the kind of full-hearted “yes” I’d give if the show in question were, say, “Justified.” I told him to do it, but to give himself permission to drop out after season 6. Bingers tend to be completists, which to me only emphasizes the importance of ending a show when the creative juice is drying up. A great show that ends poorly is, alas, just very good.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.